With a doctor facing the death penalty, the international medical community must act now 

Since the arrest of Ahmadreza Djalali in Iran in 2016, human rights, medical, and scientific organizations have condemned each step of the Iranian government’s persecution of Djalali, a leading Swedish-Iranian expert in emergency disaster medicine. According to multiple credible reports, Djalali is now in solitary confinement in Evin prison and scheduled to be transferred to Raja’i Shahr prison in Karaj, an action understood to be routine before the implementation of death sentences in Iran

Djalali is among a group of Iranian dual citizens and foreign nationals affiliated with Western academic, economic, and cultural institutions whom the Iranian government has arrested and held in prison with unfounded charges of cooperating with a “hostile state.” These cases share a pattern of detainees being accused of spying or espionage; undergoing judicial processes marked by serious violations of due process, including systematic denial of access to lawyers of their choosing; and experiencing inhumane conditions and in some cases psychological and physical torture to extract forced confessions. 

While he was visiting Tehran from Sweden at the official invitation of Tehran University and Shiraz University in April 2016, Djalali was arrested by agents of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence. As is the case with other dual nationals currently imprisoned in Iran for “espionage,” Djalali has written that he had been pressured by Iran’s intelligence ministry to work as a spy for Iran in Sweden and the other European Union countries where he has strong organizational affiliations. In October 2017, Djalali underwent judicial proceedings before the Revolutionary Court in Iran that failed to meet international standards. He reported being tortured and held in prolonged solitary confinement without regular access to a lawyer. 

Iranian authorities extracted a forced confession from him with torture and threats to execute him, kill, or otherwise harm his children and wife who live in Sweden and his mother who lives in Iran. He was then sentenced to death by execution for allegedly committing espionage for a hostile government, by some accounts on the charge of “spreading corruption on earth.” International human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have consistently held that the offence of “corruption on earth” fails to meet requirements for clarity and precision needed in criminal law and breaches the principle of legality and legal certainty.

Subsequently, his sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court in summary and secret proceedings held without the knowledge or participation of his defense lawyer. Over his years in prison, Djalali has been repeatedly denied medical treatment despite blood tests showing a low white blood count and symptoms concerning for leukemia.

The Iranian government has failed to respond to multiple international appeals for information about Djalali. International human rights bodies hold that it is a violation of the right to life to pass a death sentence after criminal proceedings that violate fair trial guarantees. And human rights organizations such as Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and Amnesty International oppose the death penalty in all cases and without exception as the ultimate cruel and inhuman punishment. There has been no response to requests such as a formal request in November 2017 from the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to the Iranian Government to provide detailed information about his detention. Multiple efforts by his lawyer to submit appeals for judicial review of the sentence have been rejected. 

In the face of his imminent execution, the international community must act now to support Djalali. Medical organizations in every country must join with United Nations human rights experts, the Swedish and other governments, international human rights, and scientific associations as well as a consortium of 153 Nobel Prize laureates in calling on Iranian leaders for Djalali to be treated humanely and fairly, and to be released as soon as possible

Djalali has dedicated his medical and scholarly career to public health, enhancing the capacity of hospitals and larger health systems to respond effectively to man-made and natural disasters. He now faces death at the hands of a brutal, authoritarian regime. We urge fellow members of the international medical community to contact their own foreign ministries as well as embassies of Iran in their countries to take all possible measures to save his life and to speak out for Djalali’s execution to be halted. 

Djalali worked to save lives. Now we must work to save his.

Michele Heisler, Professor of Internal Medicine and Public Health, University of Michigan and Medical Director, Physicians for Human Rights.

Competing interests: None declared.